Update, November 2004:
We have just posted some movies in Apple Quicktime format from when Alex Shoumatoff (aka “The Suitcase”) was in Armenia researching this dispatch. The 12 Gates “Beautiful City Jam” below is a traditional spiritual as played by the Reverend Gary Davis . Please click on the links below to view them in a browser window. If you would like to save these to your hard drive, right-click and select “save target as” or if you are using a Macintosh computer, hold down the “option” key when you click these links: Click here to download Apple Quicktime if you don’t already have it… 
Armenian Suitcase Collage (19.5 mb) 
Beautiful City Jam (12.3 mb) 
Duduk Jamming (8.3 mb) 
A few weeks ago, I was invited on a junket to Armenia by a New York carpet manufacturer of Armenian descent named James Tufenkian. Tufenkian employs 1500 Tibetans in Nepal and a thousand Armenians in Armenia to make carpets for him and has done so well that he has opened an upscale boutique hotel in Yerevan, Armenia’s swinging capital, and a large stone lodge on Lake Sevan, and is constructing another big hostelry in a deep gorge on the road up to Georgia. He had hired a New York p.r. firm to bring some travel writers to see the hotels and the sights of Armenia and spread the word that the twelve-year-old, smaller-than-Belgium-sized country is ready for tourism. Tufenkian seems to be a good guy, who is spiritually as well as commercially oriented, one of the successful diasporic Armenians who are helping their homeland transcend a history marked by repeated tragedy and emerge as the Costa Rica of Asia Minor. The invitation was for a four-day, all-expenses-paid, whirlwind tour of the country. Normally I do not go on junkets. The last time I went on one was to the Galapagos, where my libido had its dernier cri and I made a fool of myself (see Dispatch #6 : Journal of the Flamingo. A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy in the Galapagos). I don’t like to travel in groups, especially with professional travel writers, who go with the understanding that by they will gush about the accommodations and food and the sights, so that tourists will flock to the facilities of their host. My concept of traveling is very different. Like the late Bruce Chatwin, whom I knew slightly and admired greatly, I recoiled, at the height of my career was a “literary journalist,” at being called a “travel writer.” (Now I don’t really care; anything anyone wants to call me is fine.) Chatwin described himself as a writer who travels. This is how I see myself. I am a writer who takes himself to different parts of the world, and writes about what he encounters, what happens. I prefer to travel alone, because if you are with someone from your own culture, you will be distracted.
It becomes a shared experience, framed in the terms of your common culture, a bubble for two instead of one.
When I am on the road, I travel at the level of the local people, with a minimum of baggage: a hardshell suitcase, a sidebag, my little guitar, fields guides to the local fauna, ethnological, historical, and political studies of that part of the world, a small high-quality tape recorder, a camera, and a little stack of Red Chinese notebooks (or “thought-catchers,” as I call them), and whatever clothes and medicine is needed. And of course, a lot of cultural and psychological baggage. I have written about this in a chapter of my book, The Rivers Amazon, called “Out of Time:”
“I had wanted to ‘experience the jungle’ as fully as I could, but try as I might, I could never stop the internal monologue, the broken thoughts of a thousand shapes, none of which had anything to do with where I was, that raced through my mind [as I struggled to keep up with three young Yanomamo men who were taking me at a lope through the rainforest of Roraima, near Brazil’s border with Venezuela, during the first few days of l977]… You realize how everything that streams through your head is learned from the schools you went to, the books you read, the people you associated with, and it has no bearing on any culture but your own.”
Being divorced from all familiar referents, culture shock sets in for the solo traveler. You begin to “hemmorhage from loneliness,” as Edward Hoagland wrote after a month of wandering around Sudan on his own. Ancient, long-buried traumas resurface begin to replay themselves uncontrollably in your mind. One of the most realistic travelogues in this regard is Peter Matthiessen’s, The Snow Leopard, which is half about accompanying the zoologist George Schaller on his quest for the elusive snow leopard through remote valleys and mountain passes in northern Nepal, and half about the internal narrative that plays in Matthiessen’s while he is trekking behihd Schaler, about how little he was able to give himself to his then wife twenty years earlier, whom he had left at home, dying of cancer, while he was off slaking his wanderlust.
So if traveling with others is about us, traveling alone is about you, and has a different set of problems and filters. You can never go completely native. Your cultural processor never stops working. Nor can you get rid of—and I tried to strenuously during the Sixties, with various psychotropic drugs, to “be here now,” as Baba Ram Das/Richard Alpert us to do — the voyeur part of you that is always watching you having the experience, the pour soi who is watching the en soi, in Sartre’s terms. Particularly if you are keeping a detailed record of your experiences and observations, the pour soi, the Writer Who Never Sleeps, Crayon Tojours Avec, the voyeur voyoux is always on duty.
I have described myself at various times as a literary geographer, a cultural ecologist, a “total-immersion journalist,” a bridge, a vessel, an empty calabash, a free-floating consciousness, a generalist who blithely transgresses discipline boundaries, a participatory journalist (like the late George Plimpton, another writer I knew slightly and greatly admired, having invented my own post-gonzo, dada, participant-observor genre of journalism : investigative golf, an example of which is posted as Dispatch 12); as the last of the wandering White Russians (the émigrés from the Tsarist nobility who fled the Russian Revolution in l917. The ones who got out, including my four grandparents. A million didn’t and were killed during the revolution and its aftermath. This group by now is practically extinct, their stock having married into and been assimilated by their cultures of exile; I am at this point, at the age of fifty-seven, one of the few ostensibly full-blooded White Russians left. Exile, the loss of homeland, deracination, freed my family to explore the world, starting with my great-uncle, who collected butterflies in central Asia before the Revolution, and in his new life in the New World made the definitive collection of the rhopalocera (butterflies and moths) of Jamaica in the thirties with my then teenage father, went on to climb in the Alps and the Caucasus and the Pamirs and wrote two about them. So exploring is in my blood, as is curiosity about the natural world. My three little boys are the seventh generation of naturalists in the family.
There is another Russian term that I relate to : neudobnyi chelovek, which means “an inconvenient person,” an outsider, a trouble-maker, someone who asks questions about things that there is a conspiracy of silence about. Like the character in Jules Vernes’s Around The World in 80 Days, I am a passepartout, a skeleton key, Keats’s chameleon poet, an intermediary or interpreter or presenter and documenter and buff or enthusiast or amateur of the Other, “a modern fugitive,” in the tradition of Gauguin, D.H. Lawrence, Jack Kerouac, Aldous Huxley, and Colin Turnbull, a misfit in my own world. My last book, Legends of the American Desert has a discussion of this personality type.
I see myself as “an ambivalent and tormented representative of the Age of Reason,” as Nicholas Rizanovsky described Tsar Alexander I, who disappeared in Siberia and became a wandering monk, or starets, named Fyodor Kuzmitch. I am a throwback to the Enlightenment, the Encyclopedists, who went out and catalogued and classified and compared and cogitated about the life forms and life ways they encountered. Enlightenment for me has always been primarily a quest for knowledge, and there is no better way to broaden your knowledge base than by traveling.
I am a “rootless cosmopolitan,” as Eddie Rosser, a Berlin-born jazz trumpeter who became Stalins’s state musician and then fell out of favor and was packed off to Siberia, was branded. I am Anagarika, the homeless one, Hindi for someone who has given up the home life for the ascetic life of a mendicant. I am outis, Nobody, one of Homer’s epithets for Odysseus; the Beatles’ Nowhere Man; in Czech nymand, someone who doesn’t exist, a loser, an outsider. In the words of the Mekranoti, a community of Kayapo Indians in the Amazon, I am No Ket, No Eyes, a stranger in their midst who is so out to lunch in the rainforest that he doesn’t see what is going on; the Apache Pale Eyes, and all the other terms for white in cultures around the world, like the Navajo bilaga’ana, the Latin American gringo, the Swahili mzungu, the Lingala mendele. I would like to be more like the Buryat Mongols’ Tsagan, or White Tara, who has eyes in her feet and is alert at all times, with every step. I am a pesquisador and an umushakashyatsi– Portuguese and Rwandese, respectively, for a researcher, someone who is trying to find something out. I am a parachutista, someone who lands in places without warning, who drops in. I am a service soul, whose primary reason for being here seems to document and celebrate vanishing cultures, ecosystems and species, the “infinite variety and supreme unity of life,” as Andrey Avinoff, my great-uncle put it, and to do whatever I can to expose injustices and advocate for the voiceless and powerless; He Who Puts Words on Paper and They Become the Truth, as my wife’s Rwandan brother-in-law roasted me at a recent family gathering in Montreal. I am an umushyitsi, as Rwandans call a visitor or guest, someone who is passing through, and their children who die young. I am a maverick drifter vagabond roué pariah dog, “an exile from normality,” in Jan Morris’s term. In Canada, where my wife and our three boys live and are citizens, I have no official status or residential standing. I am just a tourist, who is not allowed to spend more than 180 days a year in the country. In many parts of the world, like Mexico, I am just a tourist, a turista, so tourist is a perfectly good word for me. My Rwandese in-laws call me Sematovu, which means He Who Has Thistles in His Pasture and has several oblique metaphorical connotations: someone who is a newcomer and hasn’t had time to clear the thistles in the pasture, or someone who is on the road so much that he is neglecting the maintenance of the home front, or someone who is a slob, who is incapable of keeping his house and all the stuff he has collected in order.
But the word I have come to use for myself is Suitcase. This is the name I sometimes perform under at the Café Perk on the Avenue du Parc on Tuesday afternoons– when I am in Montreal, of course. I am a beat-up weary old suitcase that has been tossed from plane to plane and has been everywhere from East Secaucus to the Caucasus, from Babylon to Avalon, from Bali to Mali, and is starting to come apart at the seams. My lock is busted, my latches are stuck, and I’m tied together with string. Everywhere is home to me, the world is my pearl, the world is my career, wherever I appear, yet I belong nowhere. And one day I’ll just disappear and no one will even remember that I was there.
I should explain that this metonymy (a type of metaphor where a part comes to stand for the whole, in this case a piece of equipment) occurred to me not only because shlepping around a suitcase ( I prefer a hardshell suitcase to a backpack because it is harder to break into) is the one thing that all my travels have in common, but because of a conversation I had with the Dalai Lama in l990. The conversation took place in
Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Himachal Pradesh, India. I was doing a piece for Vanity Fair about China’s genocide and ethnocide of the Tibetan people, and during a two-hour-long private audience with him, after discussing the political situation, we talked about the core beliefs of Buddhism, one of which is shunyata, or emptiness– the notion that nothing is really out there, everything is in your mind, is illusion, or more accurately, “like illusion.” “Your Holiness,” I said to him, “last night in my hotel room I got up to go to the bathroom and tripped over my suitcase, which I had left in the middle of the room, and fell flat on my face. Now you can’t say the suitcase was all in my mind, but I had completely forgotten that it was there.”
To which the Dalai Lama gave his slow, deep, resonant laugh and asked, “What is a suitcase ? You can describe everything about that suitcase—it size, shape, what it is made of, etcetera. But there will always be something about it that you failed to describe. And furthermore, if you had been a sub-atomic particle, you would have passed right through the suitcase. Therefore, neither you nor the suitcase exist independently.”
This was undoubtedly one of the most important conversations I have had in my life (But when I saw the Dalai Lama again five years later, he had no memory of it at all).
So the Suitcase was going to demean himself and take a junket? To go to Armenia for only four days? What can anyone possibly learn about a new place in four days? I knew from experience that the first week’s impressions are mostly worthless projections of your own culture and comparisons with other places you’d been to that you end up throwing out. You are perceiving not so much things as they are, but what they remind you of. Only after a week do you begin to perceive the place as it is, are you “there.” In four days I would barely recover from the jet lag, then I would have to go. It would be a hallucinal and completely meaningless experience, which was what was starting to appeal to me about it. Plus the fact that Armenia is somewhere I have always wanted to get to, because I have an obscure Armenian descent on my family tree : we are descended from the Bogratid dynasty, which ruled Armenia and Georgia a thousand years ago. And I’ve always felt good about Armenians, the few I know are extremely simpatico and very smart, a vague connection and ethnic compatibility that I wanted to explore. So maybe I should go, I thought. The opportunity to get to Armenia may not come again.
But there is another, more pragmatic,problem with junkets: no self-respecting travel magazine will buy a write-up of one. There are strict rules about taking freebees. The motto of Conde Nast Traveler (which I was one of the founding contributing editors of, but was let go after one of my golf buddies, using my name, tried to cadge a freebee from a golf resort in San Diego County in l991, and the resort got suspicious and called the magazine), is “Truth in Travel,” i.e. its writers swear that they have not been corrupted by taking a freebee and that they are giving you the real lowdown. Truth in travel to the luxury resorts and destinations that the magazine is a service publication for. Not the truth about what it is like to live in these countries. I often wondered whether Harold Evans, Tina Brown’s husband, who founded the magazine, chuckled when he came up with that one. But British travels writer are the most jaded and shameless junket-takers, so maybe Evans was just trying to put out an honest magazine.
Junkets have nothing to do with real traveling, but with being a shill for the tourism industry, which brings foreign exchange to cash-strapped developing countries (although little of the cash trickles down to the people) but erode and commodify and erzatzify their cultures in the process. When I go somewhere, I try to find out what life in the country, over the luxury compound wall, is actually like. This trip was not going to offer much chance for that, however. We would be staying in the best hotels, eating in the best restaurants, and be taken to the most beautiful sights, when the average Armenian is struggling to live on eighty dollars a month. Some publications don’t have the money to pay their writers’ travel expenses and allow them to write up junkets, but none that I write for. I checked with my editor at Travel & Leisure to see if they were up for a piece on Armenia, and she gave me the expected response, “Not if it’s a junket. You know the rules. You can go, and if Armenia turns out to be interesting and some place that our readers might like to go, let’s talk when you return, and maybe we’ll send you back.”
But maybe there was some other way to capitalize on this junket, I thought, and there was. For some time I had been thinking of trying to do a t.v. travel series called Suitcase, and this goofy “long weekend in Armenia” could be the pilot for it. Nobody reads any more, so I was thinking that if maybe someone came along and filmed me doing my thing, casing out a new place, it could have commercial potential. At the very least, it would provide a new and valuable dimension of documentation of what happened and what I encountered. So I spoke with my Montreal friend Howard Reitman, who is in the movie business, and he was up for coming along with a camera and filming whatever happened.
The main premise of the Suitcase is that the most interesting things that happen to you on the road are the things you didn’t plan for, the chance encounters, the unpredictable convergences and conjunctures, coincidences and synchronicities that can sometimes change your life. A few weeks after our long weekend in Armenia, I described the Suitcases’s modus operandi to a woman in Munich who had written long literary travel pieces for the German Geo, when is was still publishing such things– spending months with the Romani, or gypsies, in Ceaucescu’s Romania; in the ex-slave communites of Mauritius; covering Lhasa during the l987 riots. “So you are an accidental journalist,” she said. That a good term, a good description of the Suitcase.
My wife and I met on an Air Ethiopia Flight from Entebbe, Uganda, to Rome, on October 7, 1987. Both of us had changed our flights at the last moment, and had I not been kicked out of my seat by the Ugandan minister of Youth, Culture, and Sports (Moses Taylor, who later tried to overthrow President Yowari Museveni and is presently behind bars), and plunked myself down next to her, and had not a whole chain of other flukey circumstances fallen into place, we would never have met. Not only were our two lives radically transformed by this apparently chance meeting, but sixteen other people’s, and three people came into this world because of it. So you have to open yourself to these things. That is, for me, the Suitcase, the whole point, and art of traveling : going with the flow, orchestrating the unpredictable. Breaking away from the patterns of your life that you get rutted in.
When life gets stale
You can always hit the trail
When you’re sick of bills and dishes
And unfulfilled wishes
And life gets boring
You can always go exploring.
Travel is my lifeblood : putting myself out there and encountering new landscapes, flora and fauna, music, languages, and people gets my juices flowing again. I never feel more engaged and alive than when I am somewhere that I have never been before, trying to figure things out, noticing things and wondering what they are and what they mean and how they fit with each other and into the overall picture. My wife, who is Rwandan and is a citizen of four countries as well as a permanent resident of Mexico, loves to travel as much as I do, and she says that I am the most talented traveler she has ever known, maybe even more talented that I am a writer. In terms of the places I choose to go to and what I pick up on and get interested in, and the ease with which I move around and connect with people, my ability to “fit in everywhere.” Which Rosette possesses even more than I. There is an expression in Rwandese, “When you are in a land where the people eat flies, you eat them raw.” Rwanda a patrilineal society, so the women know that their life is going to involve a journey, that they will have to fit in to their husband’s family and culture, if he is not Rwandan, and so they are unusually adept at adapting.
Rosette and I consider ourselves, as the heads of a blended Luso-Slavic-Watusi- American-Canadian family of seven, she having had four exiles by the time she was thirty, me coming from a family of émigrés and being American only because of the accident of a revolution in Russia seventy-six years ago, to be more citizens of the world than anything. But our passports are American, and this is a problem, because currently there are 59 countries on the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory list, thanks to the illicit junta’s illicit attack on Iraq, and the ill feeling that was already widespread due to the fact that America is sucking the marrow out of the rest of the world, that anywhere from 25 to 66% of the world’s resources are flowing to the USA to maintain the American good life. (“Hey, so we’re doing more than our bit,” was a Rolling Stone editor’s response when I ran these numbers by him some time back, and this is sadly typical of the amount of angst that Americans feel about snookering the lion’s share of the world’s resources and opportunities.) So with the world growing farther apart than together these days and American xenophobia and geographically challenged culturebound cluelessness more pronounced than ever, I consider travel these days to be of more than just of personal benefit, a way to expand my knowledge (there is another Rwandese proverb that says, “the more you see, the more you understand,” and Goethe said, “you only see what you know”), but an obligation. Apparently Jay Leno got a bunch of young Americans on his show not long ago and asked them, Who did we fight the Vietnam war against ? And they didn’t have a clue, because they didn’t even know that Vietnam is a country. Not long ago, I was in a pizza joint halfway out on Long Island, and got talking with several of its teenage patrons. I told them I had come down from Montreal, and none of them knew where Montreal was, or that it was Canada. So there’s a problem, exemplified by our president, who had never been to London or Paris before he took office, and a few months into his administration said, “Africa is country with a lot of problems.” Americans need to be reminded that there’s a rest of the world out there, even if they aren’t ever going to get there, which I’ve always found one of the most perplexing aspects of the “melting pot.”
So this long weekend in Armenia would be more about us junketeers than about Armenia or the Armenians, and would be a meditation about the act of traveling : why I do it, and how I do it, which I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately, because this is what I’ve done with my life, and there will come a time when I won’t be able to do it anymore. How many years to I have left to do real, hard traveling? Maybe ten, fifteen if I’m lucky.
Of course I would take my little traveling guitar, currently a Yamaha six-string Guitalele that I picked up at Archimbault’s, Montreal great music store on St. Catherine St. I always do, to break the ice with the locals and jam with them and learn their music and keep myself amused in transit, during the long stints of down-time, as there always are, when you are waiting to get to the next place, sitting in some airport or train station, and nothing is happening. Maybe we should call the show the Strumming Suitcase, like the Singing Nun, I suggested to Howard as we boarded the plane to London, the first leg of our trip. The guitar can provide a sort of spontaneous running commentary on whatever we run into, and I can work on the Suitcase theme song, a swing cabaret Django Reinhart-style blues that I was working on and already have a whole cd’s worth of lyrics for.
I’m a suitcase
Shuffling from place to place
A weary beat-up old suitcase
No name, no tags, no face
I got no destination or deadline
Just pack my clothes and head on down the line
I’m a lost case
Going no place fast
A weary beat-up old suitcase
Running from the past
I’m still embarrassed about that trip to Paris
It’s great to be home, but maybe I should still be in Rome
(this last couplet is from the fertile mind of my six-year-old Edgar)
Got no heart to break
Got no soul to rob
Got no money to take
Got no steady job
I’m just a suitcase
Always on the move
Here one day gone the next
Got no prepared text or pretext
Nothing left to lose, nothing to prove….
“You’re going to have to be quick on your feet if you gonna keep up with Suitcase,” I warned Howard. “You’re going to have to have eyes in the back of your head, and in your feet like the White Tara. You can’t miss a thing. Every snatch of conversation, everything that’s happening in the foreground, middle ground, and background. Because there is no story-line, no narrative arc. The Suitcase is all over the place, on the case. Lots of things are always happening at once, on many levels, and the Suitcase has to be attuned to all of them.” Every story is a window into the infinite, and this is has always been my main problem as a writer—containing the subject. To explain what one thing is and how it got to be that way, you have to explain half a dozen other things, and each of these buds off half a dozen more. Winwood Reade, a Victorian historian of Africa (who ended up having the same problem and starting his history with the creation of the universe) calls this phenomenon “the law of infinite prerequisites.” It is similar to the Buddhist law of dependent existence, of the chain of causes that is responsible for everything that exists.
Sometimes the different levels of what is going on converge, and these moments of synchronicity, these conjunctures, as William Burroughs called them, can provide a heightened, even mystical experience. I hope you will be able to capture one of these moments, which we are bound to experience, I told Howard. They are the big pay-off of traveling, the epiphanies.
“And not only that,” I added, “you’re going to have to style the Suitcase. That’s where I need help. How much Michael Moore, and how much Peter Ustinov, should he be ? Should he have his shirt tucked in, or out, lessening the impact of his pot belly and cutting an informal, accessible, comfortable-in-his skin figure ? How much erudition should he exude ? The viewer has to be able to identify with him, to buy his shtick, so it is not just a question of vanity that whenever possible he should be shot head-on, which makes him much more appealing, than in profile, for instance. The Suitcase is the ‘I’ of the travelogue, and there undoubtedly all kinds of tricks of cinematography that you know much better than I do, that would help put him over. We have to be on top of these things if we’re going to carve a niche for the Suitcase on cable t.v..”
“Just be yourself,” Howard suggested, “and we’ll worry about how it comes out later.”
We had a couple of hours layover in London, so we took the tube to South Kensington, where I used to live in the early sixties, in an upstairs flat in the former home of W.S. Gilbert, the librettist of Gilbert and Sullivan, the Victorian musical team, on a quiet, tree-lined street called Harrington Gardens. The first two floors were rented by the Genealogical Society (royal or British, I don’t remember which). Americans of British descent who had always been told that they were descended from a duke would come here and find out that they were actually descended from the village chimneysweep. One man from Ohio actually staggered out into the street and had a heart attack on the pavement after making this devastating discovery. Our relations with the Genealogical Society deteriorated after I left a bath running upstairs and water leaked through the ceiling and damaged some priceless parish registers. There was a large, lovely garden in back, and a bench out on the street that two Lebanese brothers, who were renting another flat, and I would watch couples making out on summer evenings. Near the bench was a sign that said, “It is an offense to allow your dog to foul the public footpath.” But it was no longer there. I loved the eccentric precision of British English.
There was a poster in the Gloucester Road post office that said,
KEEP CEASELESS WATCH FOR THE COLORADO BEETLE
What a wonderfully iterative and mobilizing admonition. It made you glance anxiously over your shoulder for one of the nasty little things. It got your immediate attention.
I took Howard to some of my old haunts, the Bailey Hotel and the Stanhope Arms pub near the Gloucester Road Tube station, where I used to go for a pint with Geoffrey Stillingfleet and his cronies, even though I was only sixteen and they were in the seventies and eighties. Geoffrey had survived the infamous Japanese prisoner of war camp on the River Kwai. He had been a pilot in the RAF and had been shot down and was one of its first prisoners. When he returned to England and four years in the camp, he found that his fiancée had given him up for dead and had married his best friend, so he devoted the rest of his life to good food and drink. Having no kin except a brother in Yorkshire, he took me under his wing, to all the classic British sporting events– Henley for the crew races, Twickenham for the rugby, Lords for the cricket, Wimbledon for the tennis. But the South Kensington I remembered had been several generations ago and only existed in my mind. The houses were still there, but the smell of the quartier was much richer. Gilbert’s house was now the offices of an architectural firm and had been spruced up tremendously from since we were there and put on the historic register, as it deserved to be, because the Delft tiling and dark baroque cabinetwork and leaded stained glass in the interior were superb. The soot and grime-covered wallpaper in the stairwell when we were there was now clean white sheetrock. My mother had offered to replace the wallpaper at her own expense, and the landlord had brought in the poet laureate (Betjman I believe) who was an expert on Victorian wallper. Betjman said that the wallpaper was by William Morris and was priceless, even though its pre-raphaelite floral patterns were impossible to see. So it remained, and we left in l964 for a lighter and larger flat on the much noisier Cromwell Road. No one there knew what had become of the Genealogical Society.
I felt like Rip Van Winkle or a peripatetic Proust á la recherché du temps perdu, trying to recover one of the many lives I had forgotten, abandoned, bailed out of, moulted from like a cicada leaving his shell. This one was very remote, from the age of thirteen to eighteen, and only on some winter and spring vacations, because I was still going to boarding school in the States, and sometimes stayed with schoolmates, and in the summers we went to Switzerland. All I could recall were fragments. The anti-nuclear rallies in Trafalgar Square with Bertrand Russell leading the chant, “We don’t want Polaris.” Taking visiting Americans up the Thames to the Tower of London. In one of whose cells, after the umpteenth time, I noticed the words Marmaduke Neville l569 chiseled into one of its stone walls, and went to the Public Records Office and learning that Neville had been imprisoned and beheaded by Henry VIII for being Catholic, wrote a short story about Neville’s last night in the Tower. In my story Neville had poached the Duke of Rutland’s trout, which I had done inadvertently that summer of my sixteenth year; it had been a capital offense until only a few years before. That summer I made my way through the early, comedy-of-manners novels of Aldous Huxley, marveling at all the long words he used, looking them up and writing down their meanings and grouping them in synonymous clusters : Laconic, taciturn, reticent; malevolent, malicious, maleficent. I remembered, for the first time in forty years, a few snatches from a biker song that was a big hit on the British charts. The youth was dividing into Mods and the Rockers, and the Beatles and Stones were about to break out. It was called “Just For Kicks.”
When my bird decides to turn up
I’m off to have a burn-up
A burn-up with my bird upon my bike.
Just for kicks
We ride all through the night
My birds hangs on in fright….
In a second-hand bookstore bulging at the seams (that was my favorite thing about London, so many used bookstores), Howard and I found a book about Dagestan that was one of the People of Caucasus handbooks in a series called Caucasus World, published by Curzon, a small academic house in Surrey. There is also a handbook on the Armenians in the series, that would have been good to have along, had we know about it.
We returned to Heathrow and at the gate to the flight to Yerevan rendezvoused with the rest of our party, five young travel writers from New York, all but one of whom were gay, and Cindy Levens, from the pr firm that had put together the junket. They proved to be delightful traveling companions, very smart and very funny, except for one, whom we named Anum. I had just received an e-mail joke about changing one letter of a foreign phrase. E Pluribus Unum becomes E Pluribus Anum, there’s an asshole in every group. Anum was one of these people who has have a schedule and spends weeks researching and plotting where exactly he is going to go and what he is going to see. He was all business, taking notes and photographs nonstop. If it was 3:45 and we weren’t back on the bus when the itinerary Cindy had given us said we should be, he got very agitated.
Anum was the complete antithesis of the Suitcase’s spontaneous, adventitious approach, so we were at odds much of the time. He never had anything nice to say. Even Howard, one of the most imperturbable and generous guys you’ll ever meet, lost his patience with him once and called him a “bitch.” But the others were great : David, the bright and hilarious twenty-six-year-old travel editor of the New York Post, who is writing a novel and a play and a screenplay, who I predict the world will be hearing from soon. Doug, who had just arrived from Zimbabwe (his father was one of the last white Southern Rhodesians whom Mugabe had not dispossessed, and was still on his farm; he was going to let them have it over his dead body) and was living way up in Harlem and had filed a hilarious story about New York’s metrosexuals for the Daily Telegraph; Gretchen, who was part Irish and part native American, from one of the Long Island tribes—the Massapequas, I think. The three of them were all heavy drinkers, seldom without a glass in hand during the entire trip. I’m sure I would rapidly become a lush if I were a professional travel writer. They kept up a running gay patter, convulsing us with frequent outrageous and raunchy wisecracks. It was interesting how they saw Armenia—Ah Men Yah !— as David joked– through the lens of their sexuality. Which only reinforces mu point that we all have lenses. There is a preponderance of gays in the travel- writing game, just as there is in the fashion and interior decorating magazine worlds, because it’s a luxury lifestyle thing, an editor told me—staying in five-star hotels, eating in the three-star Michelin restaurants, jet-setting from one destination to the next. But many writers who travel and hard-core explorers are also gay : T.E.Lawrence, Wilfred Thesiger, Bruce Chatwin, my great-uncle the lepitopterist, Tobias Schneebaum (one of my favorite Amazon books is Keep the River to your Right, in which the Brooklyn-born Schneebaum is abducted by some cannibals who turn out to be gay, and he has the time of his life), Colin Turnbull (who lived in the Ituri Forest and wrote the classic The Forest People, about the Bambuti pygmies, who never suspected his orientation, even after he returned with his black American companion), Jan Morris (who is now a woman). There are undoubtedly a lot of reasons for this. Maybe not being accepted by the mainstream of their own society, being a persecuted subculture themselves, contributes to being more open to other cultures, more cosmopolitan and magnanimous and adventurous. Not having family obligations or having the illusion that you are perpetuating yourself through children makes your one time around more intense, poignant, and detached. You’re sort of home free. You’re here, but it isn’t about you. This is why many traditional societies like the Zuñi and the Tarahumara revere their gays as special, highly-realized beings. We all have to come to terms with the fact that we are alone. Gays have a head start. But my position is that there aren’t only two sexes. There are about fifty of them.
So I learned as much about the New York gay scene on our long weekend as I did about Armenia or the Armenians. I learned that a “fluffer” is someone who sucks the dick of a porn star so that it will be erect and ready to perform when the camera starts rolling, and that there is a gay travel magazine called Out and About. We decided to start our own rival publication called Laid Over, for which I would contribute a column called the Peripatetic Pederast (when I told this to my second son, who graduated from Yale last spring, I was expecting him to be amused, but he struck out on both words; now I know I’m a dinosaur) or maybe the Hapless Hetero. Our fellow junketeers were the surprise ingredient—besides the many surprises of Armenia itself. Indeed our junket, our long weekend in Armenia, proved to be almost a nonstop surprise.
Before leaving, I had contacted two Armenians I knew: Michael Arlen, a colleague from the old, William Shawn New Yorker, and Atom Egoyan, the Toronto-based film-maker, who had made a recent film, Ararat, about the Armenian genocide and the Canadian grandchildren of some of its victims coming to grips with its traumatic legacy. Michael (Michael J., actually) is the son of a writer called Michael Arlen, who changed his name from Dikram Kuyumjian and wrote a novel in the twenties called The Green Hat, that was a huge bestseller and made him more famous than Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He is a very refined and classy guy with a wry yet tremendously warm sense of humor. I am terribly fond of him and wish we saw more of each other. Both of us went to St. Paul’s, the “exclusive” New Hampshire prep school that John Kerry, the democratic front-runner, also attended, Michael some years before me (I was ’64), where generations of the old American WASP elite were educated and he wrote two books about his family and his Armenian roots, Exiles and Passage to Ararat, as I did with Russian Blood. Michael told me he hadn’t been to Armenia since the l988 earthquake, and had known Yerevan in the mid-seventies, when it was the hippest city in the southern USSR. There was a lot of smuggling traffic with Beirut in those days. “Talk about being in the wrong place in the wrong time,” Arlen said of his homeland. “Armenia was the first Christian nation. It adopted Christianity a generation before Rome did. They thought they were getting in on a good thing, that Christianity was a growth stock, but they ended up being a Christian nation in a sea of Islam. Armenia was not a good place to be from 1000 A.D. on, and it culminated in the Turkish massacres.”
The biggest one was in l915, but massacres had been going on since the l890s and continued until 1922. Turkey took most of the country, including Ararat, and Ani, the city which the Bogratid kings built when they ruled Armenia in the ninth century, and what’s left is a rocky, barren enclave that’s smaller than Belgium (29,000 squares miles).”
When I told Arlen that I was descended from the Bagratids, he suggested that I announce, preferably drunk on cognac, when I stepped off the plane in Yerevan, “I have come to reclaim what is rightfully mine,” which Egoyan also thought would be a “shining entry.” Egoyan said there was “tons of subculture in Yerevan– amazing jazz and contemporary experimental art—so much to do, and I hope you’ll be able to access it while you’re there.” And he gave me the names and numbers of a dozen interesting people.
THE GEOGRAPHY AND HISTORY OF ARMENIA IN A NUTSHELL
Armenia sits just below the narrow neck of land between the Black and the Caspian seas, where Asia Minor rammed and continues to ram into Europe, heaving up the Caucasus Mountains. It is a region of major tectonic and not uncoincidentally political instability, pleated with half a dozen lower, east-west-trending mountain chains, known collectively as the Lesser Caucasus whose strata violently deformed and tilted and contorted by uplift. Besides Armenia’s earthquake, there was just recently one in Iran, immediately to the south. Both claimed about twenty-five thousand lives. Special methods and styles of building to withstand earthquakes have evolved over the centuries. The hills around Yerevan are plastered with close-packed, low-slung dwellings partially dug into their sides, that look like mushroom colonies. Four extinct, snow-covered volcanos rise spectacularly out of the three-thousand-foot Armenian plateau, which is mostly a treeless desert steppe, Tibetan in its starkness. Ararat is the highest (5156 meters); the others are Sipan, Aragatz, and Nemrut.
While its latitude is that of Madrid and Philadelphia, because of its elevation, the climate of Armenia is like that of Montreal. Spring and fall are the times to visit. The summer is too hot, the winter is bitter cold, as travelers have been complaining since Xenophon in the fifth century B.C..
Because it sits at the entrance of the Caucasus land bridge, a major migratory and invasion corridor from the Middle East to Europe, Armenia has been a funnel of human activity, the scene of a lot of cultural exchange and carnage, and repeated foreign invasions over the centuries. It was on the silk route, so it has received a good deal of oriental input, as well as Hellenic, Persian, and Roman. The first hominids from Africa, Homo ergaster, a transitional species, between H. habilis and H. erectus, passed through 1.7 years ago; some their remains were recently found in a cave just over the Georgia border, to the north.
Few countries or people have a longer history than the Armenia and the Armenians. They seem to be descended from the Phrygians. By 900 B.C. the Armenian proto-state, known as Urartu, had become one of the most powerful in the Middle East and had become a serious rival to the Assyrians (this is from Fitzroy Maclean’s To Caucasus). But in 590 B.C. the Urartians were overthrown by the Medes. In 521 Armenia became a satrapy of the Persian emperor Darius (Persia is now Iran), and when Alexander overthrew the Persians in 331 B.C., the Armenians abruptly found themselves under Macedonian suzereignty, and a period of Greco-Oriental influence began that lasted until 90 B.C., when a great Armenian king, Dikran or Triganes, established an independent Armenian empire that spread from the Caspian to the Mediterranean, and from Mesopotamia to the Pontic Alps (one of the chains of the lesser Caucasus). This was Armenia’s zenith, in terms of its surface area. Subsequent rulers played the Romans and the Persians off against each other with varying degrees of success until 260 A.D., when Armenia again became part of Persia. But in 286 the Romans restored King Trdat or Tiridates III to the throne of his ancestors. With the conversion of Trdat in the year 303 by his cousin, St. Gregory the Illuminator (whom he had previously kept confined for fourteen years in a well full of reptiles), Armenia became the bulwak of Christianity in Asia. The following century a holy man named Mesrop invented a special Armenian alphabet, which exists to this day, giving the culture an immediate impenetrability, and the gospels and many other scriptures were translated by monks in university-like monasteries that had sprung up by the hundreds on the plateau. (Again like Tibet.)
But toward the end of the fifth century the Persians conquered Armenia again, and the Armenian Christians endured savage persecution at the hands of Persian fire-worshipers. Then in the seventh century came the conquest by the Arabs and the rapid spread of Islam through the Middle East, and what was left of Armenia’s territories were fought over by the Byzantine emperors in Constantinople and the Mohammedan Khalifs of Bagdad.
In the ninth century Armenia briefly regained a measure of independence and some of its former glory. For the next century and a half the country was ruled by my ancestors, the Bagratuni, who were originally Jews, and had been deported from Judea to Armenia to Judea by Dikran the Great, and had gradually intermarried with the local noble families and converting to Christianity, achieved prominence. (This is from the Jewish Encyclopedia.) The founders of the Bogratid dynasty, Shabat and Bagrat, were princes of princes. By the ninth century the Bagratuni had risen to king of kings status, and they built a splendid city called Ani, and over a thousand monasteries on the plateau. The last Bagratid king, Gagik II, was captured in 1049 by the Byzantine emperor, and in l065 Ani was sacked and destroyed by the Seljuk Turks. But one branch of the Bagratuni had by become the rulers of Georgia and of two other small kingdoms to the north, Kakhetia and Imeretia, and they liberated Armenia from the Turks late in the twelfth century. Other lines of Bagratuni produced two Byzantine emperors, Konstantin Porphyrogenitus and Comnenus, and connect to the Byzantine-Greek house of Paliologus. They are a major Eurasian trunk-line. (My great uncle Avinoff, the butterfly collector, who left us with a detailed family tree, was once heard muttering the word Porphyrogenitus on the streets of Pittsburgh, where he lived and was the director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History from the late twenties until his death in l948.)
In 1236 the Mongols swept through, and Armenia was again subjugated. For the next seven centuries, the Armenians were stateless, an oppressed minority in Turkey, then, with the conquest of the Caucasus by Tsar Nicholas I in the l840s, a far southern outlier of the Russian empire. Prince Nicholas Gagarine’s sumptuous two-volume 1846 Le Caucasse Pittoresque has 80 lithographs of the newly conquered territory : deep gorges and high mountain villages with minarets and sultans puffing hookahs on patios.
Another branch of Bogratuni, the Bogrations, became a prominent family in the Russian nobility, and it is from them that I am descended, through a family called Jmakin, whose daughter married into the Panayev family, one of whose daughters married into the Lukianovitches, of eastern Ukraine, one of whose daughters married my great-grandfather, Nicholas Avinoff. There is a general-prince in War and Peace called Bogration, who was fatally wounded at the Battle of Borodino, and in the l970s, when I was doing the research for Russian Blood, I met in New York City a tall, slender, long-faced, silver-haired, soft-spoken, melancholy aristocrat named Teymuraz Bogration, who was my remote cousin. In nineteenth-century St. Petersburg some Bogration women dressed in mourning, with black dresses and veils, on Good Friday, because that was the day their ancestor in the House of David had been crucified.
During the First World War, as tsarism was crumbling, the imperial army pulled out of Armenia, leaving it defenseless, and the Turks moved in and committed the first major genocide of the twentieth century, about which there is a new book, Peter Balakian’s The Burning Tigris (the Tigris rises in the mountains of Armenia), that was on the New York Times’ best-seller list for several weeks. Balakian draws a grim parallel with America’s inaction and obstruction of the League of Nations during this holocaust and its thwarting of the international effort to stop the Rwandan genocide of l994. Fourteen years after the slaughter of close to a million Armenians by the Turks, Hitler argued to his staff, who were voicing reservations about the liquidation of the Jews, “Who remembers the Armenians ?” The Armenians who survived and their descendants do, and so do social scientists like Concordia University’s Frank Chalk, who have spend their careers trying to understand this most horrible act that humans are collectively capable of.
The Armenian genocide sparked a huge diaspora. Some fled to Iran or Iraq, some to Europe, some to the States and Canada. The American Armenians are almost a million strong. In the fall of l917 the Russian empire collapsed, and Armenia had a few years of shakey independence, until 1922, when it became a satellite republic of the USSR. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that Armenia regained, in l991, the independence it had lost eight centuries earlier. But the birthpains of its reemergence have been violent. No sooner was it on its own, than Armenia, led by its nationalistic new president, began to fight with neighboring Azerbajan over a region called Nagorno-Karabakh, which is almost completely inhabited by Armenians and has been for as long as there are records, but which Stalin, in classic conquer-and-divide mode, gave to Azerbajan to weaken and adulterate Armenia and create friction with its neighbors. After an unsuccessful attempt by the Azeris at ethnic cleansing, the Armenians drove the Azeris out and now they control the region. The Nagorno-Karabakhians consider themselves an independent republic, a sister of Armenia, but the rest of the world doesn’t recognize their sovereignty, and Azerbajan has reacted by cutting off energy and food to Armenia. The Azeris have oil, which makes the Americans willing to cut them a lot of slack, even though the America’s heart is with the Armenians. But this sort of double-dealing and betrayal has been the story of the Middle East since it was carved up by England and France and American oil companies. There has been a cease-fire since l994, but the Nagorno-Karabakh situation remains unresolved, one of several frozen post-Soviet conflicts. Armenia is completely land-locked, like Bolivia and Rwanda, and is surrounded on four sides by hostile Muslim populations. The only road to the West is through Georgia, itself a failed state in far shakier shape than Armenia at the moment, with three secessionist regions of its own, and the first part of Georgia that you go through is predominantly Azeri. So Armenia’s geopolitical situation, as Michael Arlen pointed out, is not enviable.
The internal politics of post-Soviet Armenia have been turbulent, too. In l999 assassins credentialed as journalists burst into the Parliament and gunned down the prime minister, Vazgen Sadrkisian, and six other parliamentarians. Still in prison, the assassins refuse to say who they were working for.
And yet through all these vicissitudes, the Armenians have managed to retain a strong cultural identity, despite centuries of persecution by the Turks and the Soviets, two world wars and a genocide, thanks to the Armenian church and to the diaspora, which pumps an estimated seventy-five million dollars a month into the Armenian economy. Today there are about three million Armenians in the country, and four million exiles and hyphenated Armenians—in the Middle East, Europe, and North America. The biggest industry is diamond-cutting. The stones are flown down from Antwerp and Brussels. Cognac is the biggest import. Churchill drank only Armenian brandy (and literally swore by it). Pomogranates are another big crop. This is where Persephone was given pomograntes, and where many of the Greco-Roman mystery cults originated.
Against all odds, and in comparison with its neighbors, which are basket cases, Armenia is looking up. This is due to the hard work, smarts, and indomitable spirit of the Armenians. Eight centuries of statelessness have only strengthened their resolve and tenacity and determination to survive as a people. Most of the able-bodied young adults are working in Moscow or St. Petersburg and sending money home to their families. The parallels between Armenia and Israel—both embattled islands of Judeo-Christianity in a hostile sea of Islam supported primarily by their American diasporas—are striking. (As well as Rwanda; all three are also scarred by a genocide.) The Armenian lobby in Washington is almost as powerful as the Israeli one, and there are many rich and prominent Americans of Armenian descent who are making sure that their homeland doesn’t go under. Armenians are shrewd business people, and very creative in the arts. “Armenians are a lot like Jews, except that we drink more,” Jirair Avanian, an Armenian-American who had been an art dealer in New York and was now running the best restaurant in Yerevan told me. The richest Armenian in the world is Kerk Kirkorian, who owns the Mirage Corporation, with its lucrative hotels and casinos in Las Vegas, and is currently suing Chrysler-Daimler-Benz for a billion dollars. Kirkorian is major money, and he is giving a hundred million dollars to develop Armenia’s museums and tourist infrastructure. If it wasn’t for the support of its diaspora, Armenia couldn’t survive.
We arrived in Yerevan around midnight and were ushered into the v.i.p. lounge for special treatment by Armenian customs and immigration, at a charge of fifty dollars a head, but instead were kept there for four hours while the officials, still stuck in the old Soviet authoritarian mindset, combed through our passports for any irregularities and found that David’s photo was coming loose from its page, and that Gretchen’s pages didn’t have any room for the entry stamp. I was about to ask for the kniga zhalob, the complaint book—a useful thing when the officialdom in a communist, or in this case former communist state is being a pain in the ass—when finally we were liberated. It wasn’t a promising beginning, and as we drove through a sleazy quarter of garish neon-lit casinos and passed the enormous compound, surrounded by a high razor-wire fence, that the Americans were building their new embassy in, none of us were particularly excited to be here. Armenia is strategically important for the West, holding the tide against Islam, and the United States is giving it $75 million a year in aid, its second-highest per capita foreign aid package after Israel. But it is also being very generous to Armenia’s oil-rich enemy Azerbajan, even though the Azeris have been harboring fugitive Taliban and Al Q’eda and recruiting them for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Things looked up when we reached the Avan Villa, Tufenkian’s boutique hotel, perched on a hill overlooking Yerevan, with an exhilarating view of Mt. Aragatz in the distance. The villa is like a private mansion, decorated with exquisite taste, and the cuisine is superb. (And the Suitcase is not selling out saying this, because it is true.) Both are in the Armenian style. Tufenkian is to be congratulated. He has done his homeland proud. When I got up the next morning and breathed in the dry, sun-kissed air from my balcony, I thought for a moment I was in Albuquerque. But as I looked more closely at the architecture, the pigs and chickens and rabbits and the fruits in the back yard below, I was clearly somewhere that was a lot earthier, more like Mexico.
Hayk Demoyan, who was to be our guide for the duration of our visit, joined us at breakfast. A handsome, swarthy 28-year-old, Hayk had a PhD. in Armenian history from the university in Yerevan and was extremely knowledgeable, so we actually learned a good deal, although starting from near-total ignorance we still left with only a rudimentary understanding of this culture. Hayk had written a book about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but his doctorate was about Armenia’s golden age, when the culture flowered in the fifth century. The original Hayk was Noah’s great-great-grandson; Armenians and Georgians trace their descent from him and sometimes refer to the region embracing their countries as Hayastan, or the land of Hayk. I asked Hayk if there were still any Bagratuni around, and he said that he was one himself. His grandfather was named Bagrat Bagratuni. So he was a remote cousin. We are all something like thirty-second cousins, so Hayk was maybe like my tenth or fifteenth cousin. The connection was tenuous, because we were ethnically and culturally very different body-mind configurations.
Hayk explained that the Armenian church is not orthodox, like the Russian and the Greek churches, but monophyst, like the Ethiopian and Coptic Churches. Orthodox Christians believe that Christ is both human and divine, but monophysts believe that he is only divine, and they cross themselves up down, then left and diagonally back up to right, while the Orthodox go up, down, then right and diagonally back to the heart (spectacle, testicle, wallet, and watch, as Monty Python explains). The patriarch of the Armenian Church is known as the Catholicus. The church has two holy sees, or catholicostases, one the third-century complex of Echhmiadzin, on the outskirts of Yerevan, and the other in Lebanon. The Catholicus in Lebanon died a few weeks after we got back.
We went to the Parajanov Museum, which both Arlen and Egoyan said was a must. Sergei Parajanov was a film-maker and artist during the Soviet period, a generation after Eisenstein. His films include the surreal, Dalaiesque “The Color of Pomogranate,” and “Ashik Kerin,” about an Armenian who was walled up alive in the fortress of Salkan as an offering to deter the Mongols. Parajanov also did some very interesting collages, which the museum is full of. The Soviets jailed him for many years for being a homosexual, which one of the women who showed us around the museum said he wasn’t, but he was a troublemaker, a dissident free spirit and a thorn in the side of the Kremlin. In prison he did extraordinary found-art works like Cornell, from whatever he could get his hands on. Parajanov is the genius of the culture, a sensibility much like Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The other fabulous Armenian painter was Arshile Gorki (his real name Vasdanig Manoug Adoyan), much of whose work is renditions of his lost boyhood Armenia.
There have also been genius Armenian composers and musicians, like the pianist Arno Bobadjanian, of whom there is an extraordinary statue in one of Yerevan’s parks, leaning back and away from the keyboard, his head with its huge beak of a nose thrown up to the heavens with gusto. (This is one thing we noticed in Yerevan : a lot of the people have huge schnozzes. Why this preponderance of proboscises of more than ordinary protuberance, why Armenians tend to have big noses– if indeed they do– I haven’t a clue.) Araj Katchatanian composed the music for the epic Hollywood movie, “Spartacus,” and his Guyane Ballet was used for the movie “Caligula.” Talented Armenians are to be found in every walk of life : in American one has only to think of William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy; the euthanasia activist Kevorkian, “Dr. Death,” who is presently behind bars for his compassionate assisted deaths of the terminally ill who no longer wish to live; Vartan Gregorian, whose career has included stints as president of Brown University, the New York Library, and currently the Carnegie Foundation, and is chairing the 9/11 memorial jury panel; the physicist Raymond Damadian, whose supporters recently took out a full page ad in the New York Times protesting his failure to be given the Nobel Prize. And let us not forget Giorgio Armani. Or my kick-ass divorce lawyer in Plattsburgh, New York, Ara Assadourian. And what do you think Giorgio Armani’s background is?
So who are these people, the Armenians ? Why has their culture withstood so many onslaughts and refused to die ? That is what Howard and I were wondering as we wandered through the streets of Yerevan, striking up conversations in Russian with old men playing dominoes in seedy courtyards, Howard filming the passing scene while I traced weird and fanciful patterns on the fretboard of the Guitalele. Their appearance was distinctive. Wavy black hair, though some blondes, and not a lot of body fat. They were different from their Arab neighbors, and even Georgians. The guys were better looking than the gals, David remarked (of course he was looking at the guys), whose contours were sheathed in tight-fitting spandex jeans and whose round faces were, with the occasional stunning exception, more handsome and healthy than beautiful. Now that I was among nothing but Armenians, I didn’t particularly feel an ethnic connection with them, even with my cousin Haik. I was more European. My Armenian, after all, was only a dash. I also had, while supposedly being hundred-percent “Russian,” German, French, Mongol, Tatar, Cossack, Finnish, and Ukrainian blood. I was a mixed bag, like everyone. But I felt more like these people than the Nepalis I had been with a few months before. The Armenians were proud, and didn’t seem to have any self-esteem issues, and are famously hospitable. A woman came up to us and seeing that we were lost, not only directed us to where we wanted to go, but offered to take us there. The Armenians tremendous solidarity is reinforced by their own alphabet and language (a unique variant of Indo-European; every once in a while we could recognize a word, but most of it was unintelligible), and of course their surnames; almost every one ends in –ian. The music, which features a reedy precursor of the clarinet called the duduk playing Middle Eastern minor scales, is also completely distinctive. Indeed the culture seems so homogenous and defining that for a non-Armenian, it is almost oppressive. We didn’t see a single black person the whole time. Other than that, I have no other generalizations to offer, except that people everywhere are basically the same, except that they have important differences in culture and upbringing that make them not the same at all. I can report that the cigarettes were excellent, particularly a brand with black filters that sold for fifty cents (or 350 drams) a pack. They were real smokes, without the addictive chemical additives that ruin the taste of First World butts.
What can tell you about “the Armenians ?’ Not much. We were drunk most of the time. I don’t even know what the negative stereotypes are, and didn’t pick up any Armenian jokes; you’d probably have to go to Turkey, Azerbajan, or Georgia to hear them. Our driver was a somber, brooding guy for the first two days, but by the end he really warmed up to us and thought we a complete gas. For those who can’t go there and form their own impressions, I recommend Armenia : Portraits of Survival and Hope, by Donald E. Miller and Lorna Touryan Miller, who interviews with three hundred Armenians in 1993-4, in the wake of the earthquake, which destroyed 40% of the country’s industrial capacity, and the pogroms in Azeri cities of Sumgait and Baku. Between 1988 and l990 one third of the Soviet era population emigrated. Today the economy has been transformed from a central-planned Soviet-style one to an IMF- approved robber-capitalist model and the country is struggling to build a liberal democracy. See Gerald J. Libaradian’s The Challenge of Statehood : Armenia’s Political Thinking Since Independence.
Hayk took us to one of Tufenkian’s carpet factories, where nimble-fingered women were sitting at looms, spinning and chatting and laughing. Each nine-by-twelve carpet takes three thousand hours of work. I asked if they ever sang while they worked, and an old woman sang a dirge about her son, who had been killed in the Nagorno-Karabakh war.
We had a fabulous dinner at Jirair Avanian’s restaurant, Dolmama, which was as good as the best restaurants in Mexico City. The whole feel of Yerevan, in fact– the bold, bright palette of the artwork and the decor, drawing on a vibrant folkloric tradition– is a lot like Mexico City, but all comparisons, of course, are ultimately arid and only get you so far. The cuisine, for instance, is very different from Mexican food, but just as good in its own way, particularly the very thin, slightly crunchy unleavened flatbread name tk and the dolma– beef submerged in garlic yogurt and wrapped in grape leaves, which has been a dish in these parts for three thousand years, going all the way back to the Urartians.
The next day, Day Two, we drove north into the Lorree region, on the main road to Georgia, through which ninety percent of Armenia’s trade passes. The landscape was extremely rocky. There is a saying about how the Armenians are able to squeeze bread from stone. But the soil was volcanic and rich, and it was harvest-time. Roadside stands of pomogranates, grapes, plums, apricots, and other fruits and nuts were everywhere.
We drove through a village that looked no different from the others, but Hayk said was inhabited by Yezidi, one of Armenia’s few minority groups and a very interesting one. There are about a hundred fifty Jews in the country, and a small number of Greeks, Russians, and gypsies. The Yezidi are “almost Kurds,” Haik explained, but their religion is a mix of Islam and paganism. Like Zorostrians, they worship the peacock and dress in wildly colorful clothing. An Australian anthropologist named Ian MacIntosh, who used to be the executive director of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based organization, Cultural Survival, and his aboriginal wife are studying them.
We passed through Spitak, the epicenter of the l988 earthquake. Half of Spitak’s population, twenty thousand souls, were killed. Haik said there was a theory that the earthquake was deliberately caused by the Soviets, as their empire was unraveling, to cripple Armenia as it was beginning to assert itself.
We topped a mountain pass where a fleet of black, Soviet-style limousines and a detachment of soldiers was waiting for the president, Robert Kocharian, who was touring the region. I asked if Kocharian had been democratically elected, and Hayk said, “He thinks so. He is following the example of your president.” (So they know about Bush hijacking the election, I thought. He is a role model for these struggling democracies.) The overthrow of Georgia’s president Shevernadze a few weeks after our return was not good news for Kocharian, or the new Azeri president, Ilham Aliyez, a dissolute playboy with no political experience who inherited the country from his father.
On the other side of the pass, we drove along a river lined with the ruins of Soviet toxic chemical plants : huge concrete vats, tangles of rusty pipes. The river entered a gorge lined with oak forest, but many of the trees had been cut to provide fuel for the soldiers in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. This was some of the last native forest left in Armenia, but there is no national park system. Nothing is protected, so the indigenous flora (about three thousand species of higher plants) and fauna are going fast. Getting what is left protected would be a good cause for some ecology-minded hyphenated Armenian to take on.
Deep in the gorge, we reached a little outpost called Dzorogat, where Tufenkian was constructing a large hotel, not only for tourists, but for business conventions from Yerevan. It was a scenic location, with the potential to become some day like Bisbee, Arizona. High in the crags looming above us an enormous, condor-like bird of prey, a Eurasian griffon, with a white head and underwings and a ten-foot wingspan, was making slow, wide circles. We continued through some very dramatic and unusual geology. The narrow gorge, whose warped strata had been tilted to the vertical, widened into an enormous canyon with a long, flat grassy mesas, propped by dark basaltic columns inside it. High above the canyon was the Sanahin monastery. This was the main center of scholarship from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, where most of the manuscripts, handwritten and painted in Armenian script, were produced. It was created for Queen Hozrovanoish, who was a Bagratuni. The Soviets closed it down in the late 1920’s. In l935 the Armenian catholicus was garroted by the KGB. There was an empty looted crypt with the imperial Russian double eagle which Hayk said was where one of the Dolgorukis had been buried. The Dolgorukis came from Armenia, bringing Christianity with them, and founded Moscow and became one of Russia’s princely families, along with the Imeritinsky’s, who were descended from the Bagratuni king of Imeretia.
Some kids came up and I let them play my Guitalele and asked if there were any vipers around. My boys are very interested in snakes, so I always try to bring them herpetological intelligence from my travels. The vipers here are asps, small but very poisonous, like the one that Cleopatra (another ancestors through the Bagratuni trunk-line, according to my great-uncle, who traced them to the Ptolemies) killed herself with. One of the boys ran off and soon returned with an asp that he had beheaded after it dropped off the roof of the monastery. The monastery was very solidly built of stone, and still in good shape for a ruin. As we wandered through it, suddenly in came a busload of German tourists, dutifully tromping from room to room and taking photographs and gathering around a tour guide who told them the history of the place in German. They descended on a woman who was selling postcards in the nave, and almost cleaned her out. Fortunately there were a few left when they had gone, but the woman was charging a buck apiece for them. Already disturbed by the invasion of the Germans, I told the woman that the price of her postcards was completely out of whack with the price of everything else in the country. I could probably get the same postcard in Yerevan for a quarter, I said (which was true), and it doesn’t make a tourist feel good when he feels he is overcharged. Haik was mortified, and Anum rushed to the woman’s defense. “She’s just an enterprising woman charging what she can get, and the German were willingly paying it,” he argued. I’ve seen cultures destroyed by tourism, I said, like the Bora and the Witoto in the Peruvian Amazon, and this is only the beginning of the ersatzification and commercialization of what is still a pretty pristine culture, and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth, to see this proto-capitalist gouging happening in the church of my ancestors. At least she could have the sensitivity to sell her stuff outside, like the other vendors, and not in the nave of the church. Hayk said “the woman thinks you must be drunk.” But Howard, David, and Doug understood my point. Gretchen had bought some candles and had lit them and was saying a private prayer before them, and she felt that her space had been violated by the brouhaha that I had precipitated. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help myself. I felt like I had to say something. Howard realized that he should be getting this, Suitcase in a snit, and started filming. The debate continued in the minivan as we returned to Yerevan. The more I thought about it, the more I wished I had kept my mouth shut. Where does an American get off being steamed up about a little thing like this, especially in one of the few countries that is on our side ? Who is ripping off whom ?
The next stop was completely surreal. Traveling a thousand years in the same day, we reached a gated California-style suburban community called Vahaknia on the outskirts of Yerevan. Modeled after Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles that is the biggest Armenian enclave in the U.S., it had twenty-four hour security, and four models of houses along a golf course—the first and only golf course in the Caucasus, and a section of time-share townhouses. It was a faithful replica of the American dream, a transplant of the American good life. The property was cut by a deep gorge and had a magnificent view of Ararat, a snow volcano as impressive as Mt. Fuji or Popocatapetl, soaring sixteen thousand feet up from the plateau. Hayk said that Ararat is the highest mountain in the world, compared to its surroundings. Vahaknia named after its developer, Vahak Hovnanian, who is a big developer in southern New Jersey. Hovnanian’s daughter Nina is Armenia’s executive director of tourism and development. Atom Egoyan had given me her name, and she had invited us for a drink at her house, which was generic suburban except for the basement, where a boisterous cocktail was in progress; it was done in exuberant Adirondack rustic style, with wildly twisting branches for banisters on the stairs, and shelf fungi on the walls, and a bar made out of slices of a huge oak tree that had fallen down at her father’s place in New Jersey and she had had shipped over. One wall was the native bedrock, so the room seemed like a cave, and there was water running down into a pool from it. Nina had grown up on the Upper East Side and was a hip and sophisticated New Yorker, wrapped in an imitation leopard-skin outfit that she had designed herself; she had been a fashion designer before taking this job. Her husband, a sweet, meek man who didn’t speak English, had been a Yerevan-based jazz drummer who toured the USSR, but after the Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out, he sold his drums and fought on the front lines, rising to the rank of general and becoming a great hero. They had been married for a year and had just had a daughter. The husband slapped out an infectious rhythm on his thighs as I did a swing rendition of Stardust on the Guitalele.
“Armenia is happening,” Nina told us. “It’s like we were in a bottle and a geni came and opened it.” There were about twenty people in the room besides us, and the cognac was flowing. One woman told me all kinds of things that I never would have guessed Armenians were responsible for. Like the bronze used for the Statue of Liberty came from Lorree, where we had just been, and the guy who came up with the idea of greenbacks being green was Armenian. Yogurt is an Armenian word. So is carpet. The guy who started the yogurt craze in America with Colombo yogurt was an Armenian named Colombosian. Cher, by the way, is half Armenian, half Cherokee, the woman went on. I told her I had a dash of Armenian blood myself, and she said “There’s no such thing as a little bit Armenian.” It was like a love-fest down in Nina’s basement. We were getting a blast of Armenian hospitality that none of us would ever forget.
Vahak took us up to the sales office. The houses and townhouses were selling like hotcakes, he told us. He had already moved half of the six hundred units that he was going to build. Vahak, he told us, was the Zoroastrian god of fire, who was introduced to Armenia by the Persians and incorporated into the Roman pantheon under the name Mitreaus. A lot of the churches in Armenia are built on former Zoroastrian power spots.
The Hoznanians had been refugees in Iraq after the genocide, but then in l959 there was a revolution in Iraq, the king was killed, and they immigrated to the States. Vahak got a phd. in solid state physics in Philadelphia and started working for Philco, but he and his three brothers decided to become developers and put their money together and began to build houses in southern New Jersey. Within ten years they were building houses all over country and were prospering. One of Vahak’s brothers became the fifth or sixth biggest developer in the country and does 2000 houses a year all over the U.S.A.. It got to where the brothers were competing with each other. “They didn’t know which brother they were buying from,” Vahak told me, “so we decided it was better to stay brothers than partners and went our separate ways.” Vahak builds mostly in Ocean City and Monmouth County. On the surface he exuded a Donald Trump Atlantic City kind of hoakiness, but I took a closer look at him and saw a dignified and very smart gentleman.
“Let’s go to the driving range and hit some balls,” Vahak suggested, and Howard filmed Vahak and me smacking balls out into the darkness while I showed him the secret of the swing, which I had learned from Jack Nicholson’s golf guru at the Sherwood Country Club outside of Los Angeles. Not that Vahak needed my advice. He was a serious golfer, with a twelve handicap, who belonged to two clubs in south Jersey. Anum almost killed Vahak’s son-in-law, the war hero, with a wicked shank. That might have changed the course of modern Armenian history, like the journalist assassins who knocked off the prime minister four years ago. Vahak insisted on giving us a tour of the miniature golf course. The whole soiree was kitsch—Armenian kitsch, post-glasnost kitsch, which there is plenty of in Yerevan. But it was deeper than kitsch. It was Florida, dislocated and moved to a new, improbable landscape. The transplant had been successful. But in the process it had become Armenianized. The culture had appropriated it. It had a flare and tackiness of its own. It was an expression of the energy and vitality of the Armenian-American community. I wondered what archaeologists, excavating the ruins of Vahaknia a thousand years from now, would make of it.
“Genatsi,” Vahak said, bringing us another round of beers. This is the Armenian equivalent of bottoms up or skol. “It means, ‘I hope it happens for you,’” Vahak explained. To David, hopelessly locked into the perspective of his persuasion, it sounded like Gay Nazi. This was the only word of Armenian any of us picked up on our long weekend. Even the word for thankyou was such a tongue-twister that the Armenians say merci.
Back in the minivan, all of us are pleasantly sloshed and agree that it has been an incredible day. There aren’t many places in the world you can travel a thousand years in an afternoon. India, Mexico— but these are well-known, well-traveled time-travel destinations. But Armenia is a sleeper. We discuss the kitschiness of Vahaknia, and I say that it is more than kitsch, something more serious. Anum says, “Oh spare us the pontificating,” and this is where Howard calls him a bitch.
The next morning, Day Three, was a Saturday, and Howard and I went to the Matendarian Library, which contains the largest collection of ancient Armenian manuscripts in existence. It was a impressive piece of communist Art Deco institutional architecture. A beautiful, spirited young woman gave us the tour. Howard was soon bored, and didn’t notice that the flirtation going on between the two of us. Traveling has always had a sexual dimension for me. “You are uniting the world with your amours,” a Mexican friend once observed. But then I met Rosette and that dimension of the Suitcase’s activities came to an end.
Our adorable guide showed us a fifth-century book by the father of Armenian history, Movses Khovenatsi, whose patron was my ancestor, Prince Sahak Bagratuni. “Before the Bagratuni were the Arshakuni,” she told us. “Yereshev, the fifth-century historian, said that conscious death is immortality,” she went on. This sounded like something mystical, like the Tibetan tulkus or incarnate lamas who are supposedly able to shoot their consciousness into their next body at the moment of death, but she explained that conscious death means when you give your life for your country or your family. “And this is a book by the sixth-century astronomer, Anania Shirakatsi,” she went on, “who said the earth is round long before Galileo, and the moon does not have a life of its own but is a reflection of the sun. This manuscript is by Mesrop Mashtots, who lived from 361 to 440 and invented the Armenian alphabet and a system of musical notation for the hymns he composed that no one is able to decipher today. This is the first printed book in Armenian, published in Venice in 1512, and the first Armenian newspaper, printed in Madras, India, in 1787.” She told us how the gold on the illuminated pages of the manuscripts was mixed with garlic juice, the blue was ground from lapis lazuli, the green came from copper oxide, and the red from the cochineal beetle, but no one today is able to reproduce the colors. She showed us a poem by Khochatur Abarian, a nineteenth-century poet who modernized the Armenian language and disappeared on Mt. Ararat, then took us over a large map of Asia Minor. As her arm and hand moved up to point out an ancient city high up on the map, mine followed, and our undulating limbs did a little mating dance, like two snakes. Howard, even though he wasn’t aware what was going on, captured the erotically charged pas de deux, or bras de deux, between the aging Suitcase and the cute little Louis Vuitton. If I had been twenty years younger and unattached, I could have fallen in love with that girl, and maybe there would be a few half-Armenian Shoumatoffs running around, besides the half-Brazilian and half-Rwandan ones. But I’m out of the game now.
I used to be cute and cunning
But now I’m out the running
And that’s just great
Cuz I’ve got my mate
I’ve spread my seed
What more do I need ?
Kissing her hand farewell, I emerged with Howard into the street as a large brass band—tubas, trombones, the works—followed by an excited crowd of children and moms, was coming up it. It was Breast Cancer Awareness Day in Yerevan, but our schedule for Day Three was taking us out of the city, east to Lake Sevan. We rendezvoused with the rest of the crew in the main plaza, piled into the minivan, and got out of town.
Everyone is in good spirits. Even Anum. We are making up a song that goes “Take me back to Armenia, where the pomogranates are juicy and the bread is squeezed from stone.” “And you just might find the sheep of your dreams,” David adds. We stop at my insistence to examine a roadcut that has a thick seam of obsidian, with huge jagged rocks of the black volcanic glass lying beneath it. I pocketed one for the boys. After several hours Lake Sevan hoves into view. It is huge. It looks like Great Salt Lake, but the water is sweet. Many places resemble each other, just like people, but they are not the same either. Fishermen are rowing on glassy surface of the lake, trolling nets. Tufenkian’s hotel, the Marak Tsapatagh, is on the far side of the lake. We stop at a sheep farm where a family of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh is tending a large flock that provides wool for his carpets. I play a couple of songs, Ochi Chornyi (Dark Eyes), This Land is Your Land, substituting Armenian place names : from Yerevan to Ararat, from Spitak to Lake Sevan, this land is made for you and me, and everyone joins in as best they can, two groups of people from different parts of the world, living very different lives, reaching out to each other. Howard, who is filming, finds it quite moving.
The hotel is made of stone and is like a lodge in Colorado or the Canadian Rockies. There isn’t much to do except to eat and drink and walk, which I really need to do. The Azerbajan border is only twelve miles over the golden hills behind the hotel. As we walk up to the Zanazan hotel for lunch a woman comes to the fence of her neat little farm and offers us some plums from her orchard, and we meet an old man hobbling with a cane who asks me in Russian if I know his nephew James Bagian, who lives in Los Angeles and is an astronaut for NASA. “Tell him where I am, and that I’m still alive,” the old man says. Everyone in the little village is a refugee from Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azeris who lived here were driven out a few years ago and fled back to Azerbajan or were killed. It had been an Azeri village, but Hayk said that seventh-century Armenian chronicles attest that this side of the lake was originally part of Armenia, and “the principal of who was here first” gave the Armenians the right to expel the Azeris. This is the same principal that has been used to justify the takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh, and that the Congolese intellectual Wamba Dia Wamba deplores in Dispatch #2. Isn’t there a better way for competing claims to be resolved than by force ? Can’t people learn to live with each other without invoking their prior claim and slaughtering the newcomers, or the newcomers coming with superior force and slaughtering the people in place ? I asked Hayk, and he said that was being naive. “We need to develop the mentality of Israel and rely on ourselves,” he said, “because that is the only way we are going to survive.”
We walk down to the lake as the sun is starting to set and come upon several boatloads of fishermen who are hauling their nets up on the beach and throwing their thrashing catch into plastic boxes, just as the sunset is bloodying the sky, etching the mountains and mountainous clouds across the lake with fire and flooding the water with light. This is one of these heightened moments of mystical convergence, when you are out in the world and happen upon something that is unexpectedly perfect, and you feel how rich and extraordinary life is. We all feel this, and Howard gets it on film– the happy hullabaloo, the burly men’s monosyllabic but obvious satisfaction with their catch, the squishy aquatic fecundity. It is the sort of charged quotidian tableau, where something else very important is going on in the background, that Auden captures in his poem about the fall of Icarus. The boys and Gretchen are sloshed again. We take off our shoes and walk along the shore in the gently lapping water. “May the fish live to swim another day,” Gretchen says, holding her wine glass out toward the lake. It isn’t clear which fish she is referring to, but her toast strikes the right chord. David predicts enthusiastically, “When this country comes out of the closet, it’ll be one of the best gay destinations in the world.” We talk about why we love to travel, what we get out of it. “I’m a travel junkie,” Gretchen says. “I get the itchy feet, wanderlust. After a week or so I get bored out of my gourd in my little house in Queens. I get pale and itchy. It’s like being an actor and the show is over. I have to hit the road.”
DAY FOUR, our last. Finally, we are here. We’re rocking. Wending our way back to Yerevan, we hit some of the most spectacular places in Armenia. Gardi, where there is a first-century Hellenic temple of Mitraeus, overlooking a yawning canyon that has another of these grassy mesas inside it. Mitraeus is not only the Persian Vahak, the Zoroastrian god of fire, but the Roman god of time, and the temple has twenty-four columns, one for each hour of the day. Huge caves are eaten out of the walls of the canyon below. Humans have undoubtedly lived here for a very long time. This is one of the most beautiful spots I have ever seen. We are high from the beauty.
Nearby is a gorge called Geghard that has a very early church carved into its rock walls. It is like Lalibella, in Ethiopia. Today is Sunday, and many families are making a pilgrimage to this holy site. Women are selling sweet bread cakes and gelatinous strands of honey-encrusted nuts. Sheep are being brought to be sacrificed. Standing between two of them, I sing and play a gospel song by the Reverend Gary Davis, my guitar teacher and guru :
Great Glory How Happy I am
My soul is washed in the blood of the Lamb
One day when Jesus was passing by
He set my sinful soul on fire
He made me laugh and he made me cry
Now stand back Satan get out of my way
I don’t want to hear another word you say
I’m on my way to the King’s highway
A crowd gathers around. Children stand to be photographed next to me. The Suitcase is a hit. We are invited to join a wedding party. Glasses of wine are passed around. “This is my kind of church,” Doug says. Everyone is dancing and swaying to the strum and thrum of the Guitalele. Hayk breaks it up and says we must go inside now and forbids me to play once I get in. We enter a room overlooked by two lions carved into the rock, the coat of arms of Proshian, a thirteenth-century notable who was related to the Bagratuni. The room is packed with pilgrims whose reverent faces are lit by rows of blazing candles. The religion has come back strong after seventy years of Soviet repression. Anum and I hike up to a little cave carved out of the cliff above the church and he says he had been reading about how the Armenian church was founded by Christians fleeing Cappodocia, in the third century. Anum had been to Cappodocia, which is in Turkey, and said it was an amazing complex, with catacombs and an elaborate network of subterranean chambers and passageways.
Down in the gorge a large family group is having a picnic, dancing to the beat of drums and the fluting of duduks. Howard and Doug and I want to join them, but Anum says we have to leave in fifteen minutes, if we’re going to keep on schedule and see the other places we have to see. I say but this is the real Armenia, and we argue and finally promising to be back in fifteen minutes, the three takes off for the gorge. “Well, did you see the real Armenia ?” Anum asks sarcastically when we return. “No,” I say. “They were packing up and leaving by the time we got there. The party was over. But at least we tried.”
Returning to the outskirts of Yerevan, we stopped at the St. Hripsime Chirch, built very solidly of stone in 618. In a crypt under the alter was the tomb of Hripsime, a beautiful virgin who had dedicated her life to the service of Christ and refused to marry the Armenian king, Trdates III, so he executed her. The stone used to crush her skull had been placed in a glass-over niche in the wall of the crypt.
The last stop was Echmiadzin, the ancient capital of Armenia, built between 180 and 340. It was a vast ecclesiastical complex, with impressively robed and bearded clergymen standing around officiously and surveying the crowds and making sure that everyone showed the proper respect. One room in the main cathedral housed a priceless collection of relics : a thorn from Jesus’s crown, the head of the lance that speared him in the ribs while he was on the cross, and a fragment of Noah’s ark, which came to rest on top of Mount Ararat, as well as the hands of half a dozen eminent catholoci of the past, encased in silver. This was where the institutional memory of Armenia is preserved, but it was a little too institutional for me, and left Howard and Cindy, non-Christians, cold. We were all a little churched out.
We finished the day at the vernisage, the large open-air flea market in Yerevan, where there was all kinds of stuff to buy. Carpets, jewelry, old coins, Tsarist and Soviet memorabilia, cd’s, spoons, chess sets, and other things skillfully carved from wood. I jammed with a duduk player in an embroidered white peasant shirt and was just getting the minor scale down when it was time to leave. The next morning we were on the plane, wending our way back to North America. It was only a scouting expedition, but one that had to be followed up on, and made Howard and me some new friends. Armenia, we can report from our little taste of it, is ready to receive you and well worth going to. Howard is still editing his twenty hours of footage, trying to boil them down to fifteen minutes that would be of interest to a t.v. producer, but they’re awfully rough. The best scenes turn out to be the ones of the Suitcase on the Guitalele. The music provides the only continuity to what is otherwise a complete mishmash. Howard’s directional mike wasn’t working, and the persona of the Suitcase was all over the place and needs to be pulled together into a more coherent package. But I can see what I have to do, and so does Howard, and the basic concept of the Suitcase was completely validated. We may have to go to another place and make the pilot from it. Mali is already beckoning.
On the plane to London I sit next to an Armenian woman who grew up in Iran and is living in L.A. and working for an airline.This is the first time she has been to her homeland, and she is sobbing uncontrollably at having to leave. “I want to move here if I can find a job,” she says. “The U.S. is a mess. The president and now Schwarzenegger. That’s it.” On the other side of me is another, more coiffed and hard-bitten Armenian woman, who also grew up in Iran and is living in Glendale, where she is the manager of a bank branch. This was her first time back to her homeland, too, but she has no desire to relocate. “For us, with our dollars, eating in the best restaurants, it’s heaven, but for the people who are living here, it’s another story. I’m going back to reality, to see what’s happening in the world.”